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On Court Pick, Obama Turns to Those He Trusts Most

Stephanie Cutter, President Obama's deputy reelection campaign manager, is helping the White House with its efforts to pick a Supreme Court nominee. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Cutter, Obama’s deputy re-election campaign manager, is helping the White House with its efforts to pick a Supreme Court nominee. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama is turning to a handful of trusted lieutenants — some no longer on his staff — in his bid to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat. And the reliance on his inner circle is vintage Obama.

Leading the charge inside the White House are a senior aide who played key roles in the $80 billion bailout effort of the U.S. auto industry and a high-powered Washington attorney who represented Obama’s first chief of staff in a legal case involving the president’s former Senate seat.

Outside the White House gates, several former senior Obama aides are herding the many advocacy organizations who want Senate Republican leaders to alter course by taking up the administration’s eventual nominee — though a Tuesday Oval Office meeting did little to change GOP leaders’ minds.

“These are very much the president’s go-to people. They are definitely the people you would want to bring back in for this kind of situation,” said Lanae Erickson, who tracks judicial nominations at the Third Way think tank.

“You have to do so much of the work before you announce the nominee because you don’t want to find something that would be prohibitive,” Erickson said. “So you need people you trust who won’t leak things.”

Here is a look at Obama’s Supreme Court team:

Brian Deese, special adviser to the president. Major League Baseball managers go to great lengths to ensure their best starting pitchers get the ball in the biggest games. In Obama’s eyes, Deese clearly is his ace.

“You have to have someone who is the overall ambassador for the nomination,” Erickson said. “Someone who is the nominee’s right-hand person and is in charge of the overall strategy and nominee’s profile. This is what Brian is doing.”

When the new president needed a trusted aide to oversee the controversial $80 billion auto industry bailout in 2009, he turned to Deese. When it came time to hammer out a sweeping climate pact with other countries, Obama again handed Deese the ball.

“Those were tough decisions that the president had to make early on,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday of the auto bailout. Deese helped make possible “the historic health and performance and strength of the American auto industry,” he added.

On the climate agreement, Earnest said Deese “certainly deserves a lot of credit … in terms of moving that over the finish line.”

Neil Eggleston, White House counsel. In some ways, managing a Supreme Court nomination is about unearthing any controversial legal opinions, as well as public statements or writings before the other political party does. Someone has to oversee the digging into of all candidates’ paper trails. That’s Eggleston’s job.

“They’re looking for anything that might be more controversial and how to deal with that,” Erickson said. “From a college newspaper op-ed to judicial opinions at every level. … And they have to get it before [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell does.”

Another major focus of Eggleston’s legal team is determining “what are the White House’s opponents going to cling to to try and stop this nomination,” Erickson said.

One reason Obama likely trusted Eggleston enough to both make him White House counsel and then give him such a large role in overseeing this nomination process was his handling of a legal case involving Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and allegations about former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s efforts to sell the Senate seat once possessed by Obama.

Earnest said Eggleston is “playing a prominent role here,” adding “the president is being very well served … by his legal team that’s led by Neil.”

Stephanie Cutter and Anita Dunn, the trusted outsiders. To call a deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid (Cutter) and a former White House communications director (Dunn) outsiders doesn’t quite tell the full story. This is Washington, after all. Most power brokers retain some influence long after leaving the White House.

But it’s not only about influence. When Washington insiders become outsiders, they take something else with them: knowledge. Cutter and Dunn have plenty of that, including about what it takes to run a successful Supreme Court confirmation process.

“Outside the White House, there are a range of groups that are interested in some of these [Supreme Court] outcomes, and in order to sort of self-organize, they’re going to work closely with Stephanie and some others to organize their efforts,” Earnest said. “And that will also make it easier, where appropriate and where necessary, for the White House to coordinate with those outside groups.”

A White House spokeswoman would not elaborate on just how much collaboration the White House will have with Cutter and Dunn. Cutter did not respond to an email seeking an interview.

“I think bringing them back in is super-smart. Stephanie Cutter is steeped in judicial nominations,” Erickson said. “She knows how to navigate this process beautifully.”

Obama has a long history of handing the biggest jobs and toughest challenges to senior aides in which he has long trusted. For instance, he has asked Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to negotiate major fiscal packages with congressional leaders and in January put him in charge of a “moonshot” effort to cure cancer in a decade.

After a scandal involving his mistress and classified information forced then-CIA Director David Petraeus to resign in November 2012, Obama named an inner-circle stalwart to replace him, then-national security adviser John Brennan.

And in early 2013, Obama went looking for someone he could trust to replace then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; Jack Lew, then-White House chief of staff, got the gig.

Contact Bennett at and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.


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